01 March 2007

Can we fix drugs in sports?

Another week, another steroids bust.

This little $36 million pharmacological venture has been linked to Gary Matthews, Jr., Evander Holyfield, the Pittsburgh Steelers (yes, the whole team -- or at least one of their doctors), Jason Grimsley (man that guy gets around) and other supposedly prominent, but unnamed, athletes. Since the whistle blowing of Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, Major League Baseball has claimed it is cracking down on steroids and other performance enhancers. Drug testing was instituted, which was supported by a few high-profile players like Frank Thomas. Rafael Palmeiro and Guillermo Mota are perhaps the biggest names to be caught, with the former quietly slinking out of baseball -- but not before lobbing a few verbal hand grenades at ex-teammate Miguel Tejada (don't worry, they were duds; no one believes that guy) -- and the latter profusely apologizing and promptly getting re-signed by the New York Metropolitans to a two-year deal.

And in case anyone was unsure if steroids work for pitchers, look no further than Mota's 1.00 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 18 innings pitched with the Mets. His ERA with the Indians before joining the Mets late last season? 6.21 in 37 2/3 IP. Yeah, they work.

So what do we do now? The media is calling this the East Coast BALCO, but we all know how those guys got off. The San Francisco Chronicle reporters to whom was leaked Barry Bonds' grand jury testimony got longer jail sentences than BALCO founder Victor Conte, though it seems the reporters may be avoiding jail for now.

The Mitchell investigation is supposed to be probing into the dark heart of baseball's steroid problem, but so far we have nothing on that end, nor do I expect the union to be cooperative in allowing Mitchell & co. access to any positive test results. Gary Sheffield has claimed he won't give in to any witch hunt, but everyone already knows that Bonds referred him to BALCO, so perhaps he-of-the-lightning-wrists should just keep his mouth shut and remember that no one has any sympathy for him.

One would hope that the players would be concerned, but how many journeyman outfielders do you think are drooling at Matthews' $50 million contract with the Angels and thinking to themselves, "Damn, one good year and I can have that?!"

Perhaps -- and I say this with full recognition of the irony involved -- MLB should look to the NFL if it actually wants to do something about its drug problem. Last week a group of NFL players met with commissioner Roger Goodell, players union executive director Gene Upshaw, and Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen to discuss the numerous arrests accrued by NFL players over the last year. While the meeting may not have ostensibly been to discuss performance enhancing drugs, the NFL's willingness -- and most importantly, the players' willingness -- to tackle behavioral issues bodes well for a league that desperately needs to clean up its act. Moreover, comments during the season from Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor, in which he indirectly called out Chargers' linebacker Shawne Merriman for his positive steroids test, provide reassurance that some of the game's stars do care about its image.

It's time for MLB's players to do the same, to actually start caring about their league and to realize that it helps no one to have designer drugs filling every locker room. If it's not hurting some players (because they're taking part), then it's hurting their friends, their teammates, their chances at winning, and their image. Unfortunately, MLB players have Donald Fehr for their union head, a man who guards any encroachment by the league upon players' rights or concerns as an act of war. It's going to take much more than an east coast BALCO for Fehr and the union to agree to stricter testing policies, more severe penalties, or handing over test samples to Mitchell.

But let's say things do change. Let's say Fehr leaves or loosens up or something about this scandal explodes so that the players and the league (who are far from innocent in this matter) have no choice but to act. We also cannot rule out Congress getting involved, though I think they would bungle things up, call it a great solution, and walk away as the wound festers under their hastily applied band-aid. Even so, here is what I would propose, my plan for reducing drugs in pro sports (since they are impossible to wipe out so long as private labs and chemistry sets exist). It's rather simple. I'll even put it in a nice ordered list.

  1. Each sport should cooperate with its players union to form rigid testing and punishment policies. We need Olympic-level testing standards. It must be that strict.
  2. Form an interleague organization whose job it is to research performance enhancing drugs and testing standards and to consult the leagues on their drug policies. This organization should look to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency as examples, both for everything they do right and everything they do wrong. It should also cooperate with the DEA and other concerned government agencies.
  3. Fund research into crafting tests for human growth hormone and other currently undetectable or difficult to detect substances. This is key, especially since many suspect that former steroid users have simply replaced their juice with HgH.
  4. Lock these policies and research efforts into your collective bargaining agreements. Make them sturdy but open for revision.
Most of all, MLB and NFL must show their fans that these issues matter to them, that they're doing something about them. These sports don't have steroid problems. They have drug, legal, and health problems -- Ken Caminiti is proof of that. Will it take a player dying mid-season to spur the leagues and their players to act with force and commitment?

This year a man who is by no means the only guilty one but who is certainly one of the most flagrant abusers will break the most hallowed record in sports. Much has been written about the subject, many fits thrown within the impotent realm of the blogosphere. Are we really to believe that no major league players, save Turk Wendell, care about this issue? Again I ask, what's it going to take?

4 comments:

chumly said...

It will unfortunately take new and better drugs. Maybe a few deaths of our youth trying to mimmick their hero's. Don't give up.

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